Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Cowed and Bamboozled

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 4, 2019 --  

Hong Kong's youth are risking their lives in the fight for freedom. Their mainland cousins are unwilling to do the same.

With Hong Kong's anti-government protests entering their third month with no end in sight, attitudes are hardening that will make compromise almost impossible. On one side are youthful masses of the city who angrily defend the territory's free expression and rule of law against Beijing's encroachment. On the other side is the territory's chief executive Carrie Lam, beholden to both the city's business tycoons who want stability, and her ultimate masters in Beijing who will tolerate no challenge to their control. In a leaked audio recording, Lam was heard telling business leaders she had no room to maneuver, and wished she could quit.1

The stalemate has gone on for more than a month since Lam declared "dead" the mainland extradition bill that sparked the protests. Since then, the leader has seldom been seen in public, perhaps hoping that by not antagonizing them, the protesters would simply get tired and eventually give up. Indeed, that's precisely what happened during the last mass protest cycle in 2014, when the two-month old "umbrella revolution" calling for for direct elections ultimately ended peacefully with police clearing protest camps.

But rather than fizzling out like the umbrella revolution, this protest cycle appears to be escalating. Increasingly violent episodes have taken place during confrontations between police and protesters. Protesters have thrown molotov cocktails at riot police as the police has unleashed tear gas and fired live rounds as warning shots.(2) The protesters' violent acts feed into Beijing's characterization of the civil unrest as not a protest but “rioting.” It is telling that while Hong Kong protesters have earned ample support from their Chinese cohorts in Taiwan, there is no visible support from mainland Chinese youth.

Instead, in overseas locations where both Hong Kong and mainland students can freely express their views, mainland students have repeatedly engaged in counter-protests. Whenever Hong Kong students have rallied in support of the territory's pro-democracy movement, mainlanders show up with communist flags and other nationalist symbols, disparaging the Hong Kongers lack of patriotism.3

These displays must be taken with a grain of salt. The fact that similar events have happened in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America4 suggests that the Chinese government may have instigated the counter-protests. Meanwhile, mainlanders who would otherwise support the Hong Kong democracy movement are understandably reluctant to speak out for fear of retribution from their authoritarian government.

But while intimidation might explain the lack of widespread mainlander support for Hong Kong's protesters, it doesn't explain such widespread silence. One of two things must be true: Either mainland Chinese youth are completely cowed by their masters, or they have been bamboozled into believing the propaganda they are fed. Both possibilities are equally disturbing.

It is only natural that adolescents and young adults rebel against their elders and call them out for their faults and transgressions. Given that mainland China's faults are obvious to the rest of the world -- especially to the ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it is troubling that there are so few mainland youth able to see or willing to take the risk and speak out about the same. The Soviet Union had 300 million citizens during the Cold War, and certainly as repessive as today's China. Yet every year a few dissidents would defect and speak out against the regime. Today's China has 1.3 billion citizens, but hardly any persons of conscience willing to take a stand. Where are they?

It wasn't always like this. As Soviet communism began to collapse 30 years ago, Chinese youths also rose up to demand democracy for themselves. After the Tiananmen Square protest turned into a massacre, protest leaders were imprisoned or fled overseas. Recent generations of Chinese youth show little interest in challenging their leaders, perhaps out of fear of what happened to their parents' generation, perhaps out of a desire to get rich in the mainland's economic boom, or perhaps because they actually believe the authoritarian system is superior.

Given the immense economic growth mainland China has enjoyed over the past three decades, it is plausible that many young Chinese to believe in their system, even the parts of it that appear so obviously flawed to outsiders living anywhere from Hong Kong to Paris. This may change. As China ends its era of catch-up growth and the economy begins to level off, the next generation of mainland Chinese may find their opportunities more limited and the flaws in the system far more visible. An end to the boom times might inspire a thirst for change that leads to a political awakening.

If this change comes to pass, perhaps the angry youth of Hong Kong will find themselves less alienated from their mainland cousins. Until then, it's hard to imagine the citizens of Hong Kong having patriotic change of heart.

Related Web Columns:

The Other China, June 18, 2019


1. Reuters, Special Report: Hong Kong Leader Says She Would ‘Quit' if She Could, Fears Her Ability to Resolve Crisis Now ‘Very Limited', September 2, 2019

2. Voice of America, Violent Hong Kong Protests Meet Violent Police Response, September 1, 2019

4.3. Foreign Policy, Angry Nationalists Don't Sell China's Message, August 30, 2019

4. South China Morning Post, As Hong Kong Protests Spark Clashes Among Overseas Chinese, the Way to Mainland Hearts and Minds Lies via The Moral High Ground, August 24, 2019